Deleuze: ‘Bartleby; or, The Formula of Resistance’

”He clashes with his employer also because he – like all lawyers – likes the definite and concrete, where Bartleby is “more a man of preferences than assumptions.” But his preference is not a statement in favour, but a statement against, a denial: not what we think of as a ‘preference’ at all. His choice is to decide not to choose; to take his fate out of his own hands by stoutly insisting on his desire “not to”. “I like to be stationary,” says Bartleby late in the story. “But I am not particular.” Meanwhile his employer decides that Bartleby is his fate.’‘   ( found at http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2009/05/21/herman-melville-bartleby-the-scrivener/)


Gilles Deleuze- along with Michel Foucualt- is perhaps the greatest philosopher of political resistance. Creation itself  an be defined as a means of resistance for Deleuze; that the act of creation somehow creates a way out of the predicament of the status quo. Bartleby, a character from a a Herbert Melville text, repeats the mantra  ”id prefer not to” everytime he is asked to do something by his boss.

This phrase- ‘id prefer not to’- seems at first glance like a ‘foreign language’ being made from one’s own according to Deleuze. It makes no sense and complete sense all at once- ‘It means only what is says, literally’. It is this absolute insistance on not making a preferental decision which renders the ‘formula’ of Bartleby so ‘foreign’. Barlleby makes no preference, he merely states his desire not to make a preference at all.

The statement ‘I dont want to’ perhaps states too much of a rebellion against the original command. Deleuze reckons this would make Bartleby seem to be a ‘rebel or insurrectionary, and as such would still have a social role’. It is in this refusal of refusal that Bartely creates a kind of ‘madness’ in his boss. Bartleby’s formula is ‘ravaging, devastating and leaves nothing in its wake’. Why is this so?

The formula originates in a solemn and unthreating Bartleby; a person so unthreatening and minor, a statement of refusal and rebellion could be dismissed by simply laughing  at it. An outright refusal could be seen as a challenge, as a chance for his boss to act ‘accordingly’ and strike back at Bartleby. Instead Bartleby is empowered by the statement of indifference. This refusal of refusal is also an acceptance of acceptance. It is in this grasping of both positions at the same time where Bartelby becomes undecodable, non-understandable ( like he was communicating in a foreign language) and becomes a nuisance,an undecipherable code which no one can crack, a voice in the back of the head of his boss which recreates the symptoms and problems of madness. The manta ‘id prefer not to…’ is the serial killers voice in the back of his boss’ head which cannot be negated, engaged with, dealt with, appeased or even more fundamentally understood.

Bartleby’s formula works as a strategy of resistance by remaining calm, composed, rational and by taking these ‘desired’ qualities to a radical extreme. This extreme logic of rationality, and of refusal and resignation, means the opposite response is generated in his boss, that who he is ‘resisting’. The boss cannot engage in a physco-anaylitic anaylisis of Bartleby- he cannot penetrate the subject of bartelby. His desires, wants and needs are inpenetrable. Bartleby becomes a non-entity. He is both fully subject and non-subject; object and subject simultaneously, like his offering of ‘id prefer not to’. He remains at a distance through Bartleby’s desire not to preferably communicate.

A  refusal of refusal, a negation of negation; this is the strategy of resistance we should engage with as a first step:

Give to charity? Id prefer not to…

Be politically correct? Id prefer not to…

Work an a fair day’s work? Id prefer not to…

Watch t.v all day instead? Id prefer not to…

Participate in our democratic institutions? Id prefer not to…

Become  totally apathetic? Id prefer not to…

This formula is the first step to resistance: to see a position in between ‘acceptance’ and ‘refusal’; to create a new path of one’s own, to walk into the unknown…

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